For smaller markets, Draft is their free agency
The process seems slow, because rebuilding a franchise is a brick-by-brick undertaking. The past must be deconstructed, the process of building something to dream on is not about free agents or quick fixes or easy choices.
Kansas City and Pittsburgh fans who are old enough can remember what it was like to go to bed every night thinking about the pennant race, then getting up in the morning and going right to the story. Unfortunately, the last time the Royals were truly relevant was 1993, a year after the Pirates had Barry Bonds and lost that heartbreaking series to the Braves in the '92 National League Championship Series, as well as the year Bubba Starling was born.
But while neither team has been relevant in Starling's lifetime, they now are close to the edge of contention.
"We still have a way to go," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.
"We have a lot of work to do," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said.
But more importantly, their owners have realized that they have to spend through the Draft and international scouting. In the past three years, the two teams have spent more on the Draft and international scouting than any other team, although the Blue Jays are speeding along in the passing lane.
"The way to win is with impact players," Moore said. "And the only way we're going to get impact players in Kansas City is to draft, sign and develop them. We're not going to be able to afford the big free agents nor can we probably attract them if we could match the big markets.
"Frankly, you also don't often see athletes like Starling playing baseball. They're playing football or basketball. This gives baseball a chance to compete for the best athletes."
Huntington echoes Moore's sentiments, and will do everything in his power to sign Dallas high school power hitter Josh Bell, although his college professor mother wants Bell to go to the University of Texas for three years. Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos couldn't agree with Moore more, hence his entrance into the big-time international market and his willingness to draft a Vanderbilt signee like pitcher Tyler Beede off the playing fields of Groton, Mass., and be certain to pay what it will take.
For all baseball likes to extol the virtues of slotting what Draft choices get paid, that penny-saved, penny-earned mentality may not help the small markets. What the Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Toronto ownerships understand is that $7 million to Starling is a lot better investment than the three years and $30 million it will to take to sign a free agent like Nick Swisher, who, while an enthusiastic and solid player, isn't often mentioned next to the word "impact."
If there were slotting, baseball probably wouldn't sign Starling away from his football obligation to the University of Nebraska. What does that mean in Moore's projections?
"There are no guarantees, I understand that," Moore said. "But this is a kid [from Gardner, Kan., 30-40 miles from Kauffman Stadium] who can be for our region what Chipper Jones has meant to the Atlanta franchise. When [the Braves] so wisely picked Chipper and he made it, there were kids throughout the South who wanted to be Chipper Jones."
Like Justin Smoak, for instance -- just check his swing.
"I think that Bubba Starling can have that kind of impact on our franchise," Moore said. "We strongly believe he was the best player in the Draft. We know he won't sign cheap. But six or eight years from now, if there are kids in Missouri and Kansas who want to be the next Bubba Starling, what does that mean to the franchise?"
With Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas already in the Majors and likely to be fully established when and if Starling is ready, the Royals can have a chance to return to the days when they owned that town.
Smoak did not come at slot costs. The Pirates know that No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole is going to be expensive, but they went over slot to sign Jameson Taillon with the No. 2 pick in the first round last year, and went way over slot to sign second-round pick Stetson Allie. Two years ago, they paid slot money to Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez in the first round, while they went above slot for a half-dozen high school pitchers from the second round down. However, think how different the Bucs would look if they hadn't taken Clemson lefty Daniel Moskos with the fourth pick in 2007 instead of expensive catcher Matt Wieters.
Cole is 14 months older than Taillon, so two years from now, Pittsburgh may be looking at three very young, very big arms in Cole, Taillon and Allie, in addition to Charlie Morton and the pitching that has been so solid this season.
Pirates fans should appreciate that these last two Drafts haven't been about money, just getting the best potential players. Ditto Kansas City, and like the former Pittsburgh regime, before seeing how a small market can build the franchise, the Glass family tied Allard Baird's hands when it came to the Draft.
Take the Adrian Gonzalez deal. If Gonzalez had stayed in San Diego for this, his final year, would the Padres be that much better? Yes, he may end up as the American League MVP, but PETCO Park turned him into an .800 OPS hitter at home, and he would likely have been left at the end of this season no matter what. Instead, Anthony Rizzo has come up at the age of 21 from Triple-A Tucson, where he was hitting .365 with 16 homers, 63 RBIs and a 1.159 OPS in 52 games. It's the beginning of a new age in Fish Taco-land.
But, remember, current Padres personnel director Jason McLeod -- once the scouting director of the Red Sox -- drafted Rizzo in the sixth round of the 2007 Draft and paid him well above slot. McLeod knew him as arguably the kid with the best makeup he'd ever drafted, and if Boston had not paid what it took to sign him, the Padres wouldn't have a player they know -- as opposed to the players the White Sox were offering for Gonzalez.
In the next few weeks, Casey Kelly will come up from the Texas League and move into the Padres' rotation. McLeod had to pay Kelly $3 million to sign in 2008, because Kelly had committed to play quarterback for the University of Tennessee. So because McLeod was part of signing Rizzo and Kelly for more than the Commissioner's Office preferred, the Padres have two Major League-ready players -- with Reymond Fuentes on the horizon -- that they know and believe will play significant roles in rebuilding the franchise. If they had to wait for next June to use a couple of Draft choices for Gonzalez, it might be 2015 before they'd get any impact, and chances are, by then McLeod and GM Jed Hoyer would be out of work.
Oh yes, and the Red Sox have Gonzalez for seven years in a ballpark where he could be an annual MVP candidate.
So this week wasn't just a "crapshoot." It was vital to the restoration of two gloried baseball franchises. It was vital to the Jays, who know they have to overpay to get free agents to Toronto, and to the Rays, whose market severely limits their creative management.
It was vital to the Orioles, who know they can't outbid the Yankees or Red Sox for free-agent pitchers and have to win the American League with a power rotation built around Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Dylan Bundy, Robert Bundy and Brian Matusz. And by the way, former O's executive and current MASN broadcaster Mike Flanagan took some heat for going over slot to sign Arrieta, who they now believe is their legit No. 1 starter for the next few years.
"This is the way we have to compete," manager Buck Showalter said.
Think about it: $7 or 8 million for Starling until he's at least 26 or $30 million for Swisher at ages 31-33? Dylan Bundy for $5 million and six to eight years of control or five years and $75 million of C.J. Wilson at ages 32-36?
Think about Hosmer, Moustakas, Wil Myers, Starling ... and about Cole, Taillon, Allie ...
Peter Gammons is an analyst for MLB Network and a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.